How to Make Choosing the Right School Easier
This Op-Ed below originally appeared in the NYTimes on December 6, 2015 and has been reprinted with permission.
Are the student achievement scores at charter schools too good to be true? Every year, urban school districts across the country release test scores showing dismal student proficiency in math and reading, especially for students in poverty. At the same time, parents in those same cities often hear claims by many charter schools that their students score two or three times higher than their district school counterparts. Are these results accurate?
Unfortunately, conflicting claims make it difficult for parents to get the information they need. Charter proponents point to studies like the one from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which demonstrates better performance by some urban charter students on standardized tests. Critics challenge these studies by arguing that charter schools cherry-pick students, discourage the enrollment of students with behavioral problems or disabilities, and discharge underperforming students.
Based on our experience running both district and charter schools, we believe that charters have shown real gains and can play a transformative role in educational reform. But we also think the data comparing the schools and the enrollment process are not clear enough for parents to make informed decisions.
Moreover, because this fight remains unresolved, these gains are dismissed and the charter sector’s ability to serve as a source of innovation for the broader system goes unrealized.
There are four actions we can take to resolve much of the conflicting information and improve school choice.
First, the institutions that authorize charter schools, like state and city education departments, should move beyond simplistic — and potentially misleading — comparisons of test scores and instead follow the example of clinical trials. When evaluating a new medication, researchers must report the data for all participants, whether they complete the study or drop out. If researchers reported only the results of those who finished, they would erroneously inflate the efficacy of the drug because the dropouts would most likely be subjects who might not have tolerated or responded favorably to the treatment.
The same should be true with all schools, traditional district and charter. Failure to report student attrition often results in a false and inflated impression of the school’s actual effectiveness. When any school reports test scores, it should be required to report the number of students who have dropped out or voluntarily left the grade.
Second, we need to create a single, unified enrollment system for district and charter schools. During the current application process, parents are typically required to obtain and fill out multiple applications for different charter schools or networks. Multiple applications confuse parents and can encourage schools to cherry-pick students by targeting applications to specific student populations. Regulators should address these problems by moving to a single, universal application lottery and enrollment process for all schools.
Initiated in Denver and New Orleans, and now expanding to other cities, a common process has been proved to increase equity of opportunity. An analysis of those early efforts from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (which receives private and public funding and which favors free-market approaches) reveals that the single application makes enrollment more transparent and easier to navigate for parents, and provides district leaders with data on how to manage schools.
Third, states and other school authorizers should require schools to report on the types of students who are offered seats through lotteries, on which types enroll and, if students leave, on the reason for their departure. Key categories should include special education by disability, language status and previous academic performance.
The New York City Independent Budget Office, for example, found that students at New York City district and charter schools dropped out at roughly the same rates. But the disturbing question of whether charters “push out” troubled students has received national attention, most recently through the controversy surrounding the city’s Success Academy schools. Other reports have found highly variable expulsion practices or significant deficiencies in self-reporting across the sector. If we want to judge a school’s efficacy, then all schools should consistently collect and report this information.
Finally, when students leave, charter schools should be required, at a minimum, to report the vacant seat in that grade and, potentially, fill it with another student. A kindergarten class can lose 50 percent of its students during the year without replacing them. One New York City report claimed that charter operators left more than 2,500 seats for older students unfilled, even with thousands languishing on waiting lists.
In the end, transparency should be required for all schools. Charters receive taxpayer funding and many operate in public spaces, so they should be required to meet this standard. Universal admissions, together with better information, may not resolve all controversies around charters. But it will help parents make better choices and it is long overdue.
Correction: December 24, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the organization that found single applications make school choice more transparent and easier for parents. It is the Center on Reinventing Public Education, not the Center for Reinventing Public Education. The article also misstated the source of the Center’s funding. It is funded privately and also through government support and contracts. It is not privately funded only.
Roger Altman is a board co-chairman, and Robert Hughes the president, of New Visions for Public Schools.